A message from Robert Schucker.

I’m often asked by homeowners to recommend what types of plants to add to their yards. This can be a perplexing question for a non-horticulturist. Knowing where you want to plant is the first step. 

Here are the main considerations when choosing one: 

FUNCTION.

What purpose will the plant serve? To block a bad view? Add privacy or shade? Provide aesthetic interest or attract wildlife? Once you decide on functionality, you can begin narrowing the selection process. Arborvitae provides good privacy screening, for example. 

If it’s aesthetics, think about when the plant will flower or what color the leaves will be in the fall. If you already have lots of spring flowering plants then consider plants that flower in the summer or fall. Does the garden lack winter interest? Select a plant with interesting bark or small berries to attract wintering birds. Winterberry Ilex and Witch Hazel are good examples. 

LIGHT. 

The type of plant to select will be further determined by the amount of sunlight the area receives, which can range from full sun to deep shade. If you’d like a plant that requires more sun, pruning surrounding trees and bushes may provide more light. 

Keep in mind that evaluating light levels before full foliage comes in can provide a false analysis and lead to mistakes. A given spot may receive more sun in March than it does in July, for instance. 

HARDINESS.

All plants have a hardiness rating that is the minimum temperature a plant can withstand. Bergen County is in hardiness zone 6b, meaning the average low temp is minus five to zero degrees F. While plants sold at local nurseries usually fall in this zone, some plants may not, so be sure to double check. 

EXPOSURE. 

Is the area sheltered or protected from winter winds? Broadleaf evergreens that are planted in exposed areas are more susceptible to winter damage caused by cold winds. Spruce hold up well to winter winds. Also consider surrounding features such as hardscapes and buildings. Heat can radiate off these surfaces, in which case a drought tolerant plant may be a better choice. 

DRAINAGE. 

The type of soil and how water moves through it can make or break a plant. Heavy, clay-based soil is likely to hold more water, while sandy soil is likely to drain faster. Plants that cannot take “wet feet” will slowly decline and die. Other plants, such as Red Twig Dogwood and Sweet Bay Magnolia are wet site tolerant and will thrive in these areas. 

SIZE & GROWTH RATE.

What looks cute at the nursery can quickly outgrow its site if not spaced properly. All plants have a height and width that they will mature to over time. While some plants will grow a quarter inch a year, others grow 8-10 inches a year. In addition, different plants can be maintained at different heights or require more extensive pruning. Siting and access to the plant should take these factors into account. 

MAINTENANCE.

Are you up for the work? Certain plants are more susceptible to insects and disease and require more pruning and care. If you’re more of the set-it and forget-it type, selecting disease tolerant plant varieties will help reduce long-term time and financial commitments. 

If you do have a plant growing too large for its site, or that fails to thrive, all is not lost. Most plants can be relocated, and spring is one of the best times of year to do so. 

Now that you know what goes through my mind when selecting the right plants, you can avoid mistakes like placing a 50-foot maple tree in your flowerbed.

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